The American President (1995)
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cinematographer: John Seale
Producer: Rob Reiner
By Jon Cvack
I once heard on some podcasts that people view presidential administrations as one of three TVs - The West Wing’s idealism, Veep’s unawareness, or House of Cards’ treachery. Compared to past and current presidents, you realize it’s more of a three-way spectrum.
The American President is one of maybe twenty-five movies my dad would put on growing up. Not quite as frequently as The Sound of Music (1965) or Ghost (1990), but pretty close. Having no interest or knowledge of politics (and therefore having no idea the Clinton scandal was about sex), I recall it was my first understanding of the presidency. Now seeing this through political eyes, the idea that my Republican father would so much enjoy this movie about a Democrat dating a firebrand liberal and running against a family-values conservative just goes to show the power of story. If I were to list some of my favorite scenes before I got into movies, it'd be when the President responds to an airstrike and how he likely just killed a janitor who was going about his job, I remember the way in which it uses imagery to convince me of an idea. I saw the man who I knew nothing about, going to a job and getting killed while the people who should be killed were likely safe. It’s one of my initial memories of empathy. My initial memories of the film were of moments like this - of charm, wit, intelligence, and leadership (I was nine when it came out). This time around, I saw how much fun Sorkin gave to the adults by showing how government and elections function.
The American President is essentially a brilliant proof of concept feature for what would go on to become The West Wing. Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd who’s gearing up for reelection. Working with his team, including Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen) and Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy (played brilliantly by Michael J. Fox), David Paymer as Leon Kodak, Deputy Chief of Staff, and Anna Deavere Smith as Robin McCall, White House Press Secretary (who compared to the other three dudes, is the team’s most boring character; more on that later). They’re leading the charge on a watered down defense bill that’s three votes shy of passing the senate and looks to keep Shepherd's approval rating at 63%. In shotgun is a far more aggressive climate change bill, in which a local environmental lobbying firm just hired ace lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening); a passionate, brilliant, and expensive lobbyist whose results make it worth it (though I was left wondering how an environmental lobbyist makes more than the president, as she later says). I’m not sure if lobbyists were viewed the same way then as today, but the set up is pure Neoliberal Sorkin - a rich and hyper educated lobbyist gets involved with a powerful and hyper educated President; determined to make it a better world for all. People can make fun of it, but I see it the same as any fantasy about the upper classes which draws the public eye; they want to see lives and scenarios larger than their own.
Frank Capra’s influence is apparent from the get go. Similar in style to The West Wing intro but without the individual character crossfades, Rob Reiner opts for washes between the American flag and various artifacts you’d find in the oval office - former president busts, bronze eagle statues, an expensive looking clock.
It’s a style I now see hardly anywhere else beyond some Hallmark Christmas movies when I’m home for the holidays. It’s radically sentimental, and perfectly achieves Capra’s classic voice. Given that Capra’s films were obviously even whiter than in the 90s, the best Sorkin can do to address this issue is have Sydney quote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to the film’s one speaking black actor security guard. In one of the cringier moments, Sydney’s lobbyist colleague condescends her her to avoid making the movie reference to the black security guard as he neither cares nor could understand the reference. Of course, the security guard does get the reference and smiles back at the ladies and that’s about as much color as the film receives. It’s a fine example of racist-lite, where I’m sure a seemingly good intention moment reveals the - at best - implicit bias writers deal with throughout each generation.
President Shepherd - who lost his wife a few years back - develops an immediate attraction to Sydney, after a pretty funny scene, where in classic structure, she unleashes a firestorm of criticism against the president should he fail to support the climate legislation; she’s talking to A.J. with her back turned and then the president then enters. Only Michael Douglas could pull off appearing to not give a single fuck what she said. Instead he develops an attraction to her.
The film was released at the pinnacle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Aaron Sorkin also wrote the screenplay while on blow. In some ways it diminishes the film’s power knowing American politics of the day which would continue its downward trajectory from Lewinsky on (not Obama; Sarah Palin and the Tea Party and then Trump)..
Clean as it seemed, in this #MeToo era, there is a bizarre dynamic at work. On the one hand, if Reiner and Sorkin were going to honor Capra, it was completely normal for two people to meet and become engaged within days (both in films and culturally*). Thus, to have Shepherd immediately faun over and quickly fall in love while fast, wasn’t nearly as bad as the strange power dynamic. Sydney never seems to mind that he used the FBI to find her number (we never know it’s a joke; and I’m not sure it is - think about it, he couldn’t call her work to ask for her home number). I suppose there are questions of a peculiar power dynamic between the two, and after sitting here trying to criticize the relationship, the combination of Capra influence and simply telling a good story makes it work. I never get the impression that Sydney is a weak character. Given how charming and handsome Michael Douglas is (nevertheless his position), it seems reasonable that it wouldn’t take as much as much effort as, say, Lyndon Johnson, to win her attraction.
Abiding by the classic romance structure, they have their first fight when Shepherd's challenger, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) leaks pictures of Sydney standing a demonstration while a flag burns in the foreground. It causes a press firestorm and Shepherd’s numbers start tanking. The public doesn’t like the idea of the President dating; let alone a liberal like Sydney Wade. Shepherd and his team decide the crime bill is their best chance to combat the problem, but when three Senators decline to support the defense bill unless Shepherd drops the climate bill. For the good of the election, Shepherd dumps it, even though Sydney had gotten all the votes that matter, leading to her packing up; pissed that Shepherd would choose a watered down crime bill instead of significant environmental policy.
Of course, the President comes around and gives one of the greatest presidential movie monologues of all time (up there with Bill Pullman’s), declaring that he was going to dump the crime bill because it did hardly much of anything; instead exchanging it for the climate bill because it’s the right thing to do. Looking beyond the dipping polls, he drops the ego, turns back to integrity, and says Sydney is off limits. If Bob Rumson wants to fight, he’s going to fight the President.*
It’s a bold and risky ending. We have no idea what happens. Whether Rumson backs off, or continues the attacks and beats Shephard. In today’s climate, it arguably cuts out where it should more or less begin. I was left wondering whether the intention was to develop The West Wing, another film was in the works, or it was simply the right place to end the story. Because somehow it has always worked. The film is hopeful that I’ve ever doubted he went on to win.
If I was a betting man, I’d refer to films like this for what could represent the Trump era. As so many have said, the man is entirely self-satirizing, to where even SNL just fails to capture his frantic, dangerous, and yet hilarious mind (as in laughing at his decisions, but also funny in the sense of how good he is at trolling people; guiding a scandalous discussion every week while we ignore the actual substance of what he’s doing). I work in digital production and deal with many influencers, and countless times I’ve heard that a movie should be made about them. But the situation is beyond satire, as in I either don’t think people would buy it, be interested in it, or understand it - how big it is and how absurd it can get.
Trump achieves the same. He’s not a wildly raucous, charming, or evil leader. He’s just a self-centered man with a massive and fragile ego. To provide an honest look at the situation would not be believable; we couldn’t accept the premise - either that there’s a complex human underneath there, or that someone like that could get to the white house.
Like most others, I’m completely exhausted by the situation. If you get bored and look back throughout the year, each week is a new pile of bullshit created by Trump; either racist, hurtful, sexist, offensive, or a mixture of all three. The show has had no break in nearly three years and it is beyond exhausting. Add constant mass shootings to the mix, and I’ve just never been as depressed about where the country is. Killing and hating each other, with a president who’s taking one side.
Instead, I think audiences want a return to feel good movies. The American President, Forrest Gump (1994), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and so on; films that showed characters we could aspire to be or experience. People who love one another and embody an admirable ethic and morality. To see good people fight to do good and big things and triumph in the end. It’s been awhile, but I suspect some are coming. A biopic, an American story, or a piece of history - I bet it’s coming soon.
*Funny enough, Senator Ted Cruz invoked a similar line when Trump bashed his wife and family, only to then retreat back as one of Trump’s greatest allies.
BELOW: Gets me every time
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